Mar 24, 2009

Throwing My Shoes at PBS

I never thought I would be in this space of wanting to throw my shoes at the television set when Frontline was on. For many years I have been praising the professional journalism of Frontline, talking the show up to my friends, referring to its programs to help people experience good television journalism. Its stories have been hard hitting, have been thorough, have been stunning at times.

But no more.

Tonight, their program on the deficit, "Ten Trillion and Counting" was an abominable piece of reporting, leaving out whole sides of the story and carrying the water for the Concord Coalition and the Pete Peterson campaign and its I.O.U.S.A documentary. I have no way of proving it, but it felt as if the Peterson campaign was an eminence grise. At the very least, it seems as if the producers and the reporter of the Frontline program had thoroughly digested the Peterson campaign's message and decided to do their own variation on the theme. It's a gut instinct, because they never mentioned Peterson except in the most oblique way, by a short interview with the former controller of the US, David Walker, who is the president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and who, for a number of years now, even before his resignation from the position of the Controller, has been worrying about the deficits and the national debt.

I have recommended the I.O.U.S.A. film before, but with the proviso that the attacks on Social Security and Medicare needed to be taken with considerable skepticism. In all of the attacks on them carried out by the Peterson campaign, not one mention is ever made of the terrible imbalances and inequalities that have led us to this miserable economic situation. And although Medicare and Social Security receive the brunt of the blame for the projected increases in the debt, absolutely nothing is done to question the overall misguided priorities of our federal spending policy in other areas, particularly the bloated defense and national security budget, not to mention the persistent subsidies for the health and pharmaceutical companies, big oil, tax havens and loopholes for global corporations, and the poor oversight of the financial sector which led us into this fiscal wilderness and now is receiving our bailout money to socialize its losses.

The first half of the show, however, did a pretty good job of showing the enormous ballooning of the deficit under George W. Bush's presidency, but leaving out that in addition to the $10 trillion in debt he ran up, he also squandered the surplus anticipated after the budget cutting of the Clinton administration. While the Republicans come in for some criticism, the heavy reliance upon Republican Congressmen and Senators, particularly the self-righteous and smug Judd Gregg, leaves the viewer with the message that these voices are the voices of reason.

Then the second half begins its critical projections of how medical costs are going to swamp the economy without once even mentioning the the opposition to the current health care quagmire. Don't hold your breath if you were looking for words about the about the overblown expense components in health care, or over treatment, or failures to prioritize preventive care; or the bloated defense and national security budget, or the billions of dollars that we have shelled out to subsidize the criminal venality of the richest Wall Street and hedge fund managers, or the obscene profits made by mega corporate health care providers and pharmaceutical companies (particularly in the prescription drug bill, which was in essence, an entitlement program for big pharma).

I sent a comment in to the Frontline people, but I suspect they will not post it, so I thought I would put it up here for the record:

"The damage you have done to the journalistic reputation of Frontline by airing this program is immeasurable. Not one word about the terrible drain of the defense budget or corporate subsidies to the largest profiteers in history, not one word about the continuing avoidance of taxes by corporations and the super rich, not one word about how the social security trust fund was raided over the past two decades to "offset" previous deficits, not one word about the class inequalities that have become even greater in the past four months by bailing out the moneyed interests and large banks, minimal words about the extraordinary profits made by corporate health care and pharmaceutical interests, heavy reliance on the arguments of the Peterson campaign to reduce the deficit without any reference to it at all, nor any considered and credible rebuttal; the list can go on. In fact, to be honest, I was anticipating a sponsor advertisement from Peterson's campaign somewhere. Then I understood that this program was in essence a soft advertisement for it.

"Worst of all, you relied much too heavily on the crowd that pushes platitudes around Washington Week's round table, rather than on some credible economists or critics of the overall priorities of our economy--with the exception of Mr. Ito. Thus, there was nothing to create perspective, including the clear observation from one of your own slides that the times of the lowest federal deficit also corresponded to the times of highest taxes.

"In short, this program hardly qualifies as good solid journalism. Bring back the true Frontline spirit and stop this hogwash.

"That being said, I doubt if this will see publication in your comments section. Yet I wonder how many other faithful watchers of the Frontline series would also be in accord with my feelings. I am beyond mad. Here's throwing a few shoes at you."

No, the message of the show, on top of the current bad news this week of the bailout of toxic assets in order to keep supporting rich investors and mega-banks, was clearly that the ordinary American who has contributed faithfully to his social security and medicare trust funds should now prepare for higher taxes and shrinking benefits.

The interviews relied heavily upon conservative or centrists voices throughout. A lot of centrist journalists clarified facts or context rather than provided analysis. An inordinate amount of time was spent criticising the president for the failure of his bi-partisanship. I tallied 52 interview clips. Not one progressive voice among them--possible exception, Matt Miller, but hardly giving an alternative view, merely clarification and commentary--not one critical of the general theme of the show, which is to say, basically, the Peterson Foundation message.

Some people were interviewed for the program and had substantial things to say from the progressive side, but they got no airtime: Paul Krugman, Joe Stieglitz, James Galbraith, all were interviewed on crucial segments (on the deficit and on health care) but fell to the cutting room floor. That is to say, two Nobel economists received no exposure (except for a 1.5 second unattributed clip of Stieglitz's voice at the starting montage). Their interviews are available if you drill down in the website, and what was their message? They offered an alternative view to the panic over the debt and some alternatives, and they called for single payer health care to counter the increases in medical costs and insurance. Even Greg Ip, the writer for The Economist, had some countering arguments about the debt, but those to fell onto the cutting room floor.

This was sloppy reporting and editing to my mind. PBS should be ashamed. First of all, they should be ashamed for their almost wholesale adoption--without mention of--the Peterson message with absolutely no counter argument. Interestingly enough, Krugman, in one of his interviews, actually mentioned the Peterson campaign and criticized it quite nicely. Secondly, they should be held to account for the damage this particular show
has done to the historical integrity of Frontline programming. It is second class journalism at best, supporting an unfounded assumption, then pasting in testimony to support it rather than presenting competing viewpoints.

William Greider has done a great piece on the Peterson campaign in The Nation, and I recommend it highly for a logical counter argument.

UPODATE AND CORRECTION: in the email to Frontline I erred in referring to the journalist from the Economist as Mr. "Ito"; the name should have been "Ip"; that's what you get for having spent too much time watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

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